The Big Idea: Nancy Jane Moore
NANCY JANE MOORE:
For the Good of the Realm is The Three Musketeers with swordswomen and witches. While it doesn’t follow the plot of the Dumas classic closely, it takes place in a world in which politics, intrigue, and the potential of war with neighboring countries underlie everything that happens. Witches using prohibited magic increase the stakes of the intrigue and the risk for the women of the Queen’s Guard out to protect their Realm.
The Three Musketeers is one of the great successes in writing and publishing. First published in 1844, the book does not appear to have ever gone out of print. New translations are still being done. Not only are there at least 25 live action movies (starting at the very beginning of movie-making), there are multiple animated versions, video games, and stage productions, and many authors have been inspired to play in Dumas’s world.
I read it for the first time as a teenager and also loved the 1973 movie version, with a very young and pretty Michael York as d’Artagnan. Of course, I identified strongly with d’Artagnan, despite being a woman. It was a habit I picked up reading great adventure stories when I was young, because the women were rarely the ones having the adventures.
About twenty years ago, during a fit of reading 19th century literature, I re-read The Three Musketeers and went on to read Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. Being older and (maybe) wiser, I found it harder to identify with d’Artagnan or to ignore the way women were treated in the story. By then I’d spent enough time in martial arts to have some skill with a sword and an understanding of how women can fight, so I began to play with the idea of swordswomen in a world with the monarchy and politics of Dumas’s.
That led to the short story “A Mere Scutcheon,” in which Anna d’Gart of the Queen’s Guard retrieves a necklace for Her Majesty and must deal with a witch to do so. When Nick Gevers bought it for my collection Conscientious Inconsistencies at PS Publishing, he said he thought it would make a good novel. It took another ten years, but For the Good of the Realm is now a book.
The original Big Idea, of course, was to have swordswomen protecting the Queen and swordsmen the King. Early in the book, Guardswomen Anna and her friend Asamir become frenemies with two members of the King’s Guard. The intrigues of the Realm, compounded by the use of magic despite the ban on it, put the royals and indeed the whole country at risk. With Anna in the lead, the four must take action to protect the Realm without letting Their Majesties know about the threats from magic.
Here’s the thing about writing stories, even adventure stories: they turn out to be about much more than the place where they start. Yes, this is an adventure story in which women get to have the adventures, but it is also a story about a world in which what people do with their lives is not dictated by their gender. Further, the people of the Realm, which sits at a crossroads of many other countries, originally came from many other parts of the world to build a culture that includes a wide variety of skin colors and general appearance.
While the Realm is far from a utopia – it is a monarchy only recently reunited after more than a century of division, with a powerful Hierophante ruling the church, nobles who abuse their privileges, and pockets of serious poverty – misogyny and racism do not trouble it. The first born children of rulers and nobles inherit their rank, so class divides still exist, but anyone with sufficient skill can become a soldier. What started as a simple story of women having adventures became a story in which women have power and agency that, while it is constricted by politics, nature, and magic, is not governed by societal rules about their proper place.
A fantasy, perhaps, to think a world might exist that doesn’t police gender or limit opportunity by skin color and ethnicity, but the purpose of speculative fiction of all kinds is to ask “what if?” A story can be a light-hearted adventure and still bring up important ideas. And that’s a very Big Idea indeed.